It's risky but fun

23rd June 2000 at 01:00
Martin Spice urges would-be globetrotting teachers to read the small print carefully

So, you have finally done it. After weeks of nail biting you have been offered an overseas post. Farewell English winters, the national curriculum, tests, and a government that changes its mind every five minutes.

Welcome warm climes, a life of luxury, short hours and an endlessly exotic world of beguiling people and places. It sounds irresistible - but should you accept? The euphoria rarely lasts long before the panic and the doubts flood in. Far be it for me to put anyone off teaching overseas, but sometimes it helps to pause for thought. For many teachers, their first stint overseas is a one-way ticket. They work a series of short contracts and never return to full-time teaching in the UK. For others, it ends in tears, many of which could have been prevented with more careful preparation. So when the euphoria dies down, start asking the tough questions.

Start with the contract. Have you seen one? If not, why not? Have you read it carefully? Once the contract is signed, you are bound by it. In my experience, teachers are not used to thinking like this. Employed by the state and protected by the unions, most UK teachers can expect explicit, fair and transparent terms of employment. Overseas, this may not be true.

Ask who owns the school you are planning to work in. Increasingly in Asia, for example, schools are privately owned by individuals or syndicates who expect to make money out of them. If you don't read your contract carefully, these schools will get you on the cheap. More worryingly, there are still a few headteachers who seem to regard contracts as a dirty word.

Five years ago I negotiated my salary with the head of a prestigious school in South-East Asia. I wanted more than he was willing to offer - which was significantly less than my current salary. Having told me that he had never had a contract but had always relied "on a handshake", his final words were "Don't worry about the salary".

I took this to mean that he would meet my request. It didn't mean anything of the sort. It meant that I should accept his lower offer and not worry about it. But such attitudes are rare. Mostheads are well versed in contracts and conditions.

And that is the point - you need to be too. Make sure you know what you are letting yourself in for. It is no good bleating whenyou get there that you didn't know you had to teach during the holidays or that you had to serve dinners - if it's in your contract, you are stuck with it.

And talking of pay, what currency are you being paid in? If you have UK commitments, such as mortgages, at least part of your salary needs to be in sterling. The same head who told me not to worry about my salary was equally naive when it came to exchange rates. I remember asking what would happen if the currency devalued. "If it does that, we're all stuffed," was the answer. Two years later it did, and we were. A 50 per cent pay cut can hit you hard if you have inescapable sterling commitments. Ask about the cost of living and local taxation. Between them they can make more difference to your financial health than anything else.

Don't underestimate the importance of medicalcover. You need to knowwhat medical facilities are available and who is paying for them. Those of us reared on a national health service are not used to paying doctors and hospitals - if there are any. Medical cover insome countries needs to include flights to thenearest centre of expertise.

Professionally, you need to ponder your career. There is an unsubstantiated but widely held belief that you can work overseas for two years and return to the UK system a little below where you left off. Five years and you will find it difficult; you will have lost your grip on the latest acronyms and initiatives. Ten years and you can forget it. Far from welcoming such enhanced experience, our island race seems deeply suspicious of it.

As for moving from overseas post to overseas post, many people do it. But short-term contracts can be brutal. Make a mess of it, fall out with your principal or get a bad name in the region and you will find it tough to move on.

Very often, the great escape is to the great unknown. Which is probably as it should be. And most of us who make the transition know another great truth - once you leave teaching in England, you won't want to go back. Life overseas is just too much fun. So think hard before you accept that very tempting offer.

The website www.eslcafe.com includes a jobs discussion forum in which teachers tell of their experiences in different parts of the world. It includes salutary lessons for those thinking of working abroad.Martin Spice is a vice-principal of the British School, Kathmandu


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